Conservation Scholars: Hugh Possingham

25 11 2009

The Conservation Scholars series highlights leaders in conservation science and includes a small biography, a list of major scientific publications and a Q & A on each person’s particular area of expertise.

Hugh PossinghamOur sixteenth Conservation Scholar needs little introduction because, well, he’s so famous (especially in Australia)! I cannot estimate how many times I’ve covered Professor Hugh Possingham‘s and his colleagues’ research here on ConservationBytes, but suffice it to say it probably dominates the coverage (ok, I could have, but I couldn’t find the time). Affectionately known as the ‘Huge Possum’ for his brilliance, his effect on wide-reaching environmental policy and his no-bullshit approach to science, Hugh was awarded a coveted Federation Fellow by the Australian Research Council in 2007. He is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and one of the founding Editors-in-Chief of Conservation Letters (for which I have the honour of editing alongside him).


Born in 1962, Hugh accidentally completed Applied Mathematics at The University of Adelaide in 1984 (top of honours class of 20 students). After attaining a Rhodes Scholarship Hugh completed his DPhil at Oxford University in 1987. An ARC QEII Fellowship ANU in 1989 followed, then a postdoc with Jonathan Roughgarden at Stanford modeling barnacles. In 1990 he took a tenure-track position in Applied Mathematics. He became a Professor and Chair in 1995 and moves to become Head of the Ecology Centre at The University of Queensland in 2000. Hugh has been awarded: the POL Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, 1999, the inaugural Fenner medal for plant and animal biology from the Australian Academy of Sciences, 2000, the Australian Mathematical Society Medal, 2001, ARC Professorial Fellow, 2003, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, 2005, ARC Federation Fellow, 2006, Sherman Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, 2009. Hugh has over 290 publications, 4900 Web of Science citations and currently a lab of 32 students and staff. Work from his lab helped stop land clearing in Queensland and NSW securing at least 1 billion tonnes of CO2. Hugh has a variety of broader public roles advising policy makers and managers as he sits of 16 committees and boards including: The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (founding member), Queensland Smart State Council, Chief Editor of Conservation letters, Council of the Australian Academy of Science, member of three NGO scientific advisory committees. The Possingham lab developed the most widely used conservation planning software in the world. Marxan was used to underpin the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef and is currently used in over 100 countries by over 2000 users – from the UK to Brazil. Australia is using Marxan to help it rezone its entire Exclusive Economic Zone (2% of planet). Hugh gave a plenary at the first Marxan conference in Vancouver in April 2007. A recent international plenary was at The Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Port Elizabeth, Sth Africa 2007 – decision theory to conservation scientists – and locally the Australian Society for Operations Research, 2009 – conservation theory to decision theorists. Recent media includes discussions of: triage, assisted colonization (Science policy forum), national biodiversity policy, declining woodland birds and the conservation of travelling stock routes in Australia. He suffers from obsessive bird watching.

Major Publications

  1. Lindenmayer, DW, HP Possingham. 1996. Ranking conservation and timber management options for Leadbeater’s Possum in south eastern Australia using population viability analysis. Conservation Biology 10:235-251
  2. Possingham, HP, SJ Andelman, MA Burgman, RA Medellin, LL Master, DA Keith. 2002. Limits to the use of threatened species lists. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17:503-507
  3. Meir, E, SJ Andelman, HP Possingham. 2004. Does conservation planning matter in a dynamic and uncertain world? Ecology Letters 7:615-622
  4. Wilson, KA, M McBride, M Bode, HP Possingham. 2006. Prioritising global conservation efforts. Nature 440:337-340
  5. Chades I, E McDonald-Madden, MA McCarthy, B Wintle, M Linkie, HP Possingham 2008. When to stop managing or surveying cryptic threatened species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105:13936-13940

Questions & Answers

1. You were recently quoted saying “If you don’t know what a differential equation is, you are not a scientist”. Can you describe the importance of mathematics in conservation biology and recommend what subjects in mathematics young conservationists should pursue?

All disciplines of science eventually get consumed by mathematics. This is a natural progression as they strive for prediction and utility. In 1994 it dawned on me that conservation research would remain fairly useless in practice unless it was embedded in a decision science framework with objectives, constraints, things we control and predictive models affected by those things we control. I have not changed my view since then. After a knowledge of decision sciences (optimisation mathematics and economics) a credible conservation researcher needs some differential equations, algebra, statistics (preferably Bayesian) and maybe something flashy things like graph theory. Conservation research without decision theory is pure conservation research, which is an oxymoron.

2. You’ve certainly tackled a lot of issues in your illustrious career, but you are probably best known for your work on reserve design algorithms and the software Marxan. Can you explain what reserve design algorithms are, why they’re needed, and how Marxan works?

That may be the most useful area of the lab’s research, however intellectually it is very straightforward – what is interesting is not always useful and what is useful is not always interesting. Marxan can be summarised in one sentence – get me a set of reasonably clumped sites that reserves a reasonable amount of a whole heap of biodiversity features (or surrogates of features) that we have data on while annoying as few people as possible. That is it – and it may ultimately alter the face of ten percent of the world. As for illustrious career … there are a few intellectual giants that aren’t so big I can still clamber over them to steal some ephemeral glory.

3. While most Australians might say they value biodiversity, our poor conservation record invalidates this assertion. What do you think are some practical (and realistic) ways we can encourage Joe Bloggs to invest in and protect biodiversity?

There seem to be two sorts of people that care for nature for its own sake. First there are those that love wilderness and large natural spaces, even if they don’t go there. These are the people who believe the Amazon is worth preserving because it is so huge, wild and diverse and that is all we need to know. Then there are the people interested in natural history. I think this a less fickle constituency, however their numbers in Australia are remarkably small. I would like to build on the latter – the love of nature for its own sake. It doesn’t matter how many media interviews I do extolling my love of nature, that doesn’t work. This probably requires activities that give more people a “hand-on” experience with nature; we probably need to get more people doing things like feeding birds. I used to say that bird feeding in Australia was stupid – I think I was wrong.

4. Effective conservation requires a lot more than science because it needs to alter human behaviour. One aspect here you’ve championed is effective allocation of conservation funds. How does one do this?

If you can shop you can wisely allocate conservation funds. All you need to know is price (usually well known), benefit to you (only you can determine that), and product reliability (read a consumer magazine). Combine the three and you are 90% there. Of course we delight in making it a lot more complex, sometimes with justification, but it is just shopping.

5. You’re a member of the well-known Wentworth Group. What do you do as a group?

The Wentworth Group has successfully championed major environmental policy reforms in Australia over the past few years. Some work is highly visible (work on water reform and land clearing), but other stuff is behind the scenes. I think it is a remarkable revolution in the way science can influence policy at a huge scale, and I can claim no credit for any of it.

6. If conservation triage was a corporation, you’d probably be its CEO. What is conservation triage to you, and how should it be approached?

Conservation triage is the same as resource allocation. Haven’t you read Madeleine’s 2008 TREE paper, Corey? If conservation planning and triage is just resource allocation, which is just prudent shopping, then my entire career boils down to six words: “the smart guide to biodiversity shopping”. And 90% was done by my lab members – it is all fairly embarrassing really.

[CJAB – I did, Hugh, I promise! I’m trying to bring my readers up to speed though ;-)]

7. Happiest greenie moments.

Playing a role in stopping broad-scale land clearing in Australia (= saving about 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere) and getting all of Australia’s waters rezoned (including the Great Barrier Reef).

8. Future aspirations.

End tropical deforestation. Stop over-grazing in much of Australia. Get the people of Australia to love biodiversity. See every family of bird.

Amen, brother.

CJA Bradshaw

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3 responses

30 07 2012
Does the Pope wear a funny hat? | Marine Reserves Coalition

[…] Interview with a social (conservation) scientist, and Failing on ocean protection), but considering Hugh Possingham is town today and presenting the case to the South Australian Parliament on why this state NEEDS […]

27 11 2009
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